A review of Marx's Das Kapital; a biography - From Sam to Karl, via Francis

Tawfiq Chahboune

Many a book has been interrupted by something from the Wodehouse canon. The reverse - Wodehouse supplanted by, well, anything - is, or should I say was, non-existent. For those who are interested, I leave Sam rescuing a kitten from a tree. (Inexplicably, Sam the Sudden is Plum’s most favoured creation). The interruption to Sam’s heroics resulted from Francis Wheen’s slim volume Marx’s Das Kapital A Biography hitting the bookshops. Incidentally, to my horror, the first thing that caught my eye, on opening Wheen’s new book, was the fact that P.J. O’Rourke, the John Updike of political humour (in case you missed it, that was not a compliment), has written, as part of Atlantic Books “Books that Shook the World” series, a biography of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Prediction: in the same way that our passionate PM has understood Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy, Pineapple Juice O’Rourke has understood Smith’s magnus opus. Would it be libellous for me to put forward the contention that P.J. does not even own a copy of Smith’s treatise and is, instead, turning his unmighty talents from the “journalism” aimed at a Neanderthal-brow readership to intellectual history so as to be “taken seriously”? If it is, I’ll see you in court, Pineapple Juice.

Marx’s Das Kapital A Biography? It was the last two words that attracted me: A Biography. And so to a little background. Wheen’s biography of Tom Driberg, a name I was completely unacquainted with, was delightful. Meanwhile, Karl Marx, Wheen’s follow-up autobiographical subject, is…perhaps it is best to stop now and try not to scour my thesaurus for superlatives…no, that will not do… but resist - resist! - the draw of the OET. It was near perfection (ha, no need for a thesaurus). Near? Well, yes, just. Indeed, I could not help but recall Joseph Heller: “When I read something saying I’ve not done anything as good as Catch-22 I’m tempted to reply, “Who has?’”. Is it possible for Wheen, or indeed anyone, to match, let alone surpass, the standard set by Karl Marx? Wheen’s next biography, if indeed it can be classified as such, Who Was Dr Charlotte Bach? really must be read for oneself. The subject is far too weird for me to summarise. It became a matter of some exchange with Paul Foot, someone I usually refused to argue with. I loved the book; the great man did not, to put it extremely mildly. A by the way lesson from Orwell: a good writer does not become a bad writer because his politics aren’t yours. Euston “you have a problem” Manifesto signature and nonsensical anti-Chomsky letters aside, Wheen is an astoundingly accomplished writer.

The main criticism levelled at Karl Marx was that Wheen did not discuss the subject matter of Das Kapital - capitalism - in sufficient detail. This is a fair and justified criticism; otherwise, it is the perfect biography. Though Wheen’s new effort is complimentary, is it complementary? Does this “biography” complete Karl Marx? Apologies to Sir Humphrey Appleby, well, yes and no. No, because it does not really live up to the billing. Wheen states that Das Kapital is “a vast Gothic novel”, a “multilayered structure” that “evades easy categorization”, a “subject which allowed him to mimic the loose and disjointed style pioneered by [Laurence] Sterne” in Tristram Shandy and best seen as a work of art. This is fascinating. It may well even be true. Marx was so gifted, so brilliant, so imaginative that this may have been partly his intention. There can be no argument with Wheen’s contention that had Marx “wished to write a conventional economic treatise he would have done so, but his ambition was far more audacious”. Although Wheen supplies the ingredients, the recipe, the oven and lays the table, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The pudding, however, does not make an appearance.



Save the introduction, Marx’s Das Kapital A Biography (henceforth A Biography) is nicely split into three chapters: Gestation, Birth, Afterlife. The introduction is Wheen at his best - the Balzac story is a joy. The end of the introduction is less joyous, just plain odd: “It is deeply fitting that Marx never finished his masterpiece,” writes Wheen, because it is “open-ended”. Now, really, is “open-ended” a quality so attractive that it befits the sad incompletion of one of the most illuminating works the human intellect has produced? Plainly, no, it is not.

Gestation essentially condenses the magisterial Karl Marx into some thirty small pages. Freudians would have a field day with page 10: “In his youth Hegel had been an idealistic supporter of the French Revolution, but by middle age he had become comfortable and complaisant, believing that a truly mature man should recognize ‘the objective necessity and reasonableness of the world as he finds it’”. Et tu, Francis? What Marx ever saw in Hegel is one of life’s mysteries. Hegel’s writings are utterly ridiculous and quite mad - probably why the reactionary Michael Gove is so drawn to them. I was therefore heartened that Wheen does not spend too much time on dialectics. Little known fact: Marx never knew much less used the term dialectical materialism.

Marx, as any leftie will know, is the supreme polemicist. For example, the first third (and last page) of the Communist Manifesto has yet to be surpassed, although my copy is ruined by A.J.P. Taylor’s unimaginably stupid introduction. Easy to forget too that Marx was one of the finest ever journalists. Though he wasted his valuable time and energy on meat-headed non-entities - imagine Chomsky writing a five-hundred-page “pamphlet” ridiculing the weird-looking Stephen Pollard - Marx had the put-down, well, down. On the same page as Wheen’s Freudian battle there is Marx’s jibe about the “more noteworthy jackasses”. What would Marx have made of the shitstorian Simon “Windbag” Montefiore? A jackass, no doubt. Worthy of a note? Really, why bother? Why am I?

No matter how often one reads it, it is still impossible for me to suppress a smile on reading Marx’s boast, in April 1851, that he was “so far advanced that I will have finished the whole economic stuff in five weeks”. Famously, “economic stuff” soon became “economic shit.” Wheen cannot - who would? - omit what is my own favourite line from the Master: not entirely oblivious to the blinding fact that Das Kapital is wildly overdue, Marx writes that “I shall have finished about four weeks from now, having only just begun the actual writing”. If Samuel Johnson had compiled his dictionary later, the definition of cheek would have no possible competitor.

And so we come to chapter 2, Birth. I for one have long tried to answer criticisms of Das Kapital with an altogether mediocre analogy. I would usually compare Marx to, say, Newton or Darwin. Profoundly revolutionary ways of looking at the world are seldom without inconsistencies, without imperfections, without need of “modernization”, to use a word that only New “Labour” could make so ghastly. Wheen has given me the best analogy yet, courtesy of the Marxist political economist Michael Lebowitz: “The fact that Marx brilliantly discovered a new continent does not mean that he correctly mapped it all.” Why do so many “Marxists” find this so hard to accept? Actually, Ralph Miliband’s Marxism and Politics is well worth reading on this count, apart from Miliband’s unfunny joke that Lenin was a Marxist. Some silly billy in the New Statesman has in Montefiore-fashion descended to the same tripe that all the horrors of the modern world can be safely put down to Marx. Surely only a matter of time before the neo-con-artists blame Marx for Al Qaeda. Though Marxists don’t realise it (false consciousness, obviously!), they are all “pro-fascist”. And since jihadis are apparently “fascists”, not just something else, Marx, therefore, is the progenitor of “Islamo-fascism”. QED.

Page 65 is quite possibly the most irritating page in the whole book. Irritating because Wheen does not elaborate on something that is so maddeningly gripping. Not quite in the league of Fermat’s exasperating claim that “I have a truly marvellous proof of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain”, but Marx’s contention that there is a capitalistic economic model which, writes Wheen, “grows steadily without recurrent crises and could in theory continue indefinitely” is certainly worth elaborating on. Perhaps it is because I have read and reread this so many times in Wheen’s Karl Marx and have still not got round to investigating it that I am so annoyed.

It was the superb critic Edmund Wilson who wrote: “Marx is certainly the greatest ironist since Swift, and has a good deal in common with him”. This is, of course, too much, but it does give Wheen the opportunity to quote Marx at his most savage and witty best. Although one can point to capitalism’s productive capacities, one can do the same with crime:

A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable book in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as “commodities”…

Needless to say, the “Windbag” Montefiore would not quite get it. Montefiore’s Sisyphean struggle against intelligent thought is there for all to marvel at.



Afterlife, the final chapter, will infuriate many on the “Left”. Not me, though. Presaging the worse divisions that were to ensue, George Bernard Shaw showered praise on Marx while H.G. Wells branded him a “stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist”. What Wheen writes about Marx’s so-called heirs and disciples really ought to be about as controversial as saying that the “War on Terror” is nothing but a veil of respectability - “Enlightenment values” - to further entrench U.S. power in the Middle East. Wheen gives Lenin and Trotsky a good kicking, but not as good as the one I would have given half a chance. Even someone as brilliant as Ralph Miliband was incapable of telling the truth about the Bolsheviks.

Curiously, however, Trotsky, one of history’s great sociopaths, was uncharacteristically honest when writing how little the Bolsheviks had to do with the Russian revolution, before finally assuming power and massacring as many lefties as they could get their hands on. Lenin, meanwhile, was not merely a sociopath but a sociopath with a funny hat who took his pitiful intellectual efforts altogether too seriously. Here, for instance, is Lenin on the Marxist legacy: “Consequently, half a century later, none of the Marxists understands Marx.” Like Lenin, Marx, when he wasn’t in the British Library or enjoying picnics on Hampstead Heath, was conducting purges, shutting down workers’ councils and shooting heroic revolutionaries in the back as they fled across the ice - yes, I have a Kronstadt complex. (Before any Trot or Leninist has the usual unhistorical “self-defence” fit, much of this was before the imperial intervention.) Yes, how stupid of me not to have noticed the similarity! Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot as disciples? This in no afterlife; this is purgatory. Interesting that the same stupid “disciple” standard is not applied to Adam Smith, for is there anything more mad than Pinochet claiming to be his heir?

The book ends with a different afterlife predicted: “Far from being buried under the rubble of the Berlin Wall, Marx may only now be emerging in his true significance. He could yet become the most influential thinker of the twenty-first century.” Possibly, but then what I call an “optimism of the intellect and optimism of the will” will be required, something sorely lacking by those who have faith in a vanguard party that will lead them to the promised land. In any event, I wonder what Marx would have made of “Marxists” cheerleading U.S. imperialism in the Middle East? Come to think of it, the term “Marxist” is in itself a bit much. It is a demeaning description. I’ve yet to meet a mathematician who claims to be a “Gaussian” (not the curve).

Was it worth putting Wodehouse away for an afternoon? To answer in the affirmative is high praise indeed. Though I have reservations about certain aspects of A Biography - Trots and Leninists, meanwhile, will consider Wheen as bad as a Kronstadt sailor - the short answer is yes, sort of. Although it can’t be too long before a host of Marxist economists ignore what is good about this book and instead start grumbling that Wheen has not really made a good fist of explaining Das Kapital, it is only fair to remember that Wheen is not an economist. If you want a fine description of Marxist economics, read Paul Sweezy (as well as Michael Lebowitz for where it may require updating). If you want people to reconsider Marx, to block out the propaganda and read what this extraordinary thinker has - not, had - to say, Wheen succeeds in doing just that. For any leftie, that should be considered a mighty success. Best to stop before this review becomes as long as the book under review! And so back to Sam…



August 2006

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